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Editorial & Analysis

Steve Wozniak’s lessons for innovators

22 Nov 2011

In his keynote speech at IP EXPO 2011, Fusion-io chief scientist and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak shared with attendees some of the lessons he’s learnt over a long and prestigious career in the technology industry.

      Few people in the IT industry have a track record of innovation to match that of Steve “Woz” Wozniak. Back in 1976, he co-founded Apple Computer with his friend, the late Steve Jobs.

Thirty-five years on, he’s chief scientist at Fusion-io, a storage company that in June 2011 notched up one of this year’s most successful technology IPOs [initial public offerings].

It was no surprise, then, that Wozniak’s keynote speech at IP EXPO 2011 drew a record-breaking crowd, with numbers up 30 percent on 2010. Drawing on four decades of experience in the technology business, he had advice to share with attendees about the nature of innovation and his experience of business.

What were the key lessons that IP EXPO Online took away from Wozniak’s keynote?

  • Ignore your detractors. People are often quick to dismiss new ideas. That was certainly true in the early days of Apple, said Wozniak.  He and Jobs were frequently told “It’s just not done this way,” he recalled. “Especially when we came up with the Macintosh… All of the business users who liked to type in formulas on their computers to get things done said, “Oh, it’s a toy. It can’t do the big jobs, because it has pictures.” Eventually, Apple won them over.  “You can [have] the right formula, with everyone denying you and saying that it’s not the way to go - but if you're right, eventually, they'll all [be] on your side. You’ve got to hold out.”
  • Challenge the status quo. Opposition can be particularly fierce when a new idea threatens established technologies and existing ways of doing things. In the case of Fusion-io, the company proposes replacing traditional spinning disks with solid-state flash memory, to vastly increase the speed and efficiency of enterprise storage systems. “A lot of people said it doesn’t meet the standard of disk drives and it doesn’t fit into our management software and our big arrays of devices that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Wozniak. Today, he says, big companies such as IBM and EMC are saying “this heart that plugs right into the server, this is the way to go.”
  • Marketing counts. Without it, how will your technology reach customers? “I come from the engineering field, but one thing I learnt, when we started Apple, is that marketing is extremely important: understanding the customer, understanding the price points, the competition, how you place your product and how you present it to get it accepted,” said Wozniak. “Fusion-io’s done a great job – I’m proud to be a part of it.”
  • Innovation needs a practical application. What is innovation? “Everyone says it’s just doing something different – but artists can do different things, and if doesn’t come down to earth, feet on the ground, have some practical reality, it may never get recognised for its creativity and innovation,” said Wozniak. Innovation, he said, needs to deliver something that “might be a lot cheaper, might be simpler, might get a lot more done for people.” It’s not just about doing what the rest of the world does, but better, he told attendees. Instead, it’s about saying, “I’m going to do it all different – the way it should have been done to begin with.”
  • Trust your own instinct. In order to go in a completely different direction from the herd, you’ve got to trust your own feelings, according to Wozniak. “It takes a lot of guts to stand by that, and usually, [innovation] doesn’t work well if you have a committee deciding things. It’s better if there’s one mind to keep things going in the direction it visualised.”
  • Write your own story. Success is self-authored, according to Wozniak. “When you develop stuff with this idea of innovation, you aren’t reading somebody else’s book, telling you how to do things. You are writing the book yourself,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to have done what you’re doing ever before. Maybe no-one has ever done it before. But you sit down and you’re smart about using what’s available to you today: the components, the people, the route to getting where you want to go.”
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